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Lake Nyos suffocated over 1,700 people in one night (atlasobscura.com)
472 points by vmateixeira on Aug 12, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 101 comments

A few years ago I wrote a poem loosely based this event.

I know unsolicited poetry from strangers on the internet is almost always awful, but this poem still holds up for me, which is pretty unusual for anything I've ever written.

So I hope you enjoy it, too:


  You took me in on dusky breath,
  tasted me, tasted nothing,
  gathered by my easy take
  that I was oxygen enough
  for idle inspiration.

  How swiftly my lack became your
  lack; my misgiving, your mistake.
  Your eyes flashed a baffled
  petition as you fell limp in a
  thousand different doorways,

  cribs, embraces, fits and fields,
  yet I pressed after whatever it was
  I thought to find in the lowest
  parts of Cameroon, as foolish in
  love as a gas trapped in a lake.

If it means anything to you, I enjoy being hyper-critical, and shitting on strangers on the internet has a special place in my heart, but that poem is pretty good. I'd read more if you published it.

Thanks, that does mean a lot to me. I wish I had more to share, but writing poems takes such a long time, and my day job (programming) seems to deplete my motivation for other kinds of writing. But those are just excuses.

I have wondered if the 1986 Ladysmith Black Mambazo / Paul Simon song, "Homeless," is about this tragedy, but I have not been able to find anything online confirming it. The only things I have supporting this are the fact that it came out in 1986 and has the lyrics, "Moonlight sleeping on the midnight lake," and "Strong wind, many dead tonight it could be you." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fy3YVyh3mYE

The lyric does fit perfectly but it's not based on Lake Nyos. The Lake Nyos CO2 outgassing was on August 21 and Graceland was released on August 26.

I love the linebreak between the second and third stanza. It seems like a weird thing to love. But I finish stanza 2 and I'm like "oh no!" then a linebreak comes and I expect something different, but line 1 is the same list but more horrible.

So I enjoy (and am horrified by) the effect that linebreak had.

Thank you for sharing with us. That was horrifying and lovely.

I'll take "horrifying and lovely" any day!

I think it's pretty good :D. I know the apprehension of releasing creative works on the internet as you never know how they will be received. Thanks for putting yourself out there.

If I were to someday[0] use this for lyrics, would that be cool? Anything recorded would have full credit to you of course. PM if you want.

[0] My life is full of half-started projects...

I really enjoyed that, thank you for sharing.

you're welcome :)

Perhaps the comment page ( like https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12276437 ) should somehow show users that have favorited it.

Horseshoe Lake, in Mammoth Lakes, California, had a substantial CO2 vent in the early 2000s: http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/fs172-96/

300 tons per day at the time.

I visited in 2002. There were danger signs everywhere, advising people to stay away from the lake itself, and away from low-lying depressions.

In such forested areas, there is always a background of natural sounds, but that day, there was almost complete silence. Large swathes of trees, especially those nearer the lake itself, were standing, dead and dying. I found a couple of dead birds on the ground, completely undisturbed.

The whole situation was so eerie that I bugged out even without taking any pictures.

What killed the trees? Was the water acidic from the CO2?

From the article:

> Although leaves of plants produce oxygen (O2) from CO2 during photosynthesis, their roots need to absorb O2 directly. The high CO2 concentrations in the soil on Mammoth Mountain are killing trees by denying their roots O2 and by interfering with nutrient uptake. In the areas of tree kill, CO2 makes up about 20 to 95% of the gas content of the soil; soil gas normally contains 1% or less CO2.

Is the O2 intake needed by fungi that interact with the tree? Or is it really the plant's own organism?

The O2 is consumed by the plant - root cells are dependent on aerobic respiration for their energy.

Thank you.

It's somewhat glossed over in that plants have aerobic metabolism, but uses CO2 to build the fuel for the process.

I am not certain if the green parts will survive at at night time if there is no oxygen in the air.

I visited last year. There's still large quantities of standing dead trees, and it seems like the other vegetation never quite recovered.

The danger signs were quite spooky.

Wow, the lake turning red and so many people dying sounds like a biblical style event. It's great to have a scientific explanation of what happened.

Imagine how you'd attempt to describe it without knowing anything about chemistry or volcanism.

Considering that only 8 people survived, I'd imagine they would've thought they were the chosen ones and God smited the rest.

The eight survivors in this case survived because they understood what was happening and fled to high ground though.

If you knew stories about the lake, wouldn't you try to get away from it? And by the pictures away <==> up in most cases. Also, I feel like at least my flight instinct prefers higher ground.

Not saying the 8 survivors didn't know what's up, but stuff like this is definitely how religious stories get formed in general.

Natural instinct is to run away.

It's like how the smart thing to do is run to the side of a tree that's starting to fall over (perpendicular to it's projected fall).

A good way of describing it to the locals might be that 'bad gasses come from the lake and cling to the ground, like a leaden miasma from hell'.

You don't want to be very close to a tree that is falling over because of the way the roots tear up the ground. Or, if the tree has been cut down and its direction of fall is not clear of obstructions, the cut end of the trunk could fly around in unexpected ways. Best to be well clear on the far side of the direction of fall.

Interesting, how they were able to realize what's going on.

Wiki tells that one loses conscience after couple of inhales of CO2.

I assume that those folks went on high ground just after they've heard sound.

The article says how: "evil spirits."

I don't think you'd necessarily have to know a lot about chemistry, just some observation of volcanism. The ancient Grecian knew that ground vents & volcanoes produced noxious fumes (e.g. hydrogen sulfide), and that volcanoes can explode and kill people in fairly obvious ways.

Not to say you could have figured out the carbon dioxide part, but you could have developed an understanding deeper than "god" or "spirits".

It's easy to say so with the benefit of hindsight and centuries of accumulated scientific knowledge, but I'd say it's pretty understandable to pin such an odd and eerie event on an "evil spirit" or something similar.

I'm sure humans in several hundred years will be able to take a similarly hindsighted stance on the things that we don't have explanations for today.

"I mean, you don't have to know about quantum mechanics, but honestly thinking that there's some magic invisible energy causing the universe to expand? I mean seriously, I think I probably could have come up with some kind of explanation better than 'Dark Energy.'"

There will still be only 1% of people aware of the phenomenon at all.

The article says they're not sure if it was volcanic activity that triggered the release, or something else.

The scholars writing for posterity may have known that. Everyone else might not.

Or perhaps the Bible is full of Biblical-style tellings of poorly understood at the time natural events.

Didn't James Cameron narrate a TV show a few years back which had the premise that the biblical Exodus was in fact the eruption of a nearby volcano?

Ah the famous archaeologist and scientist James Cameron?

  His name is James, James Cameron
  The bravest pioneer
  No budget too steep, no sea too deep
  Who's that?
  It's him, James Cameron
  James, James Cameron explorer of the sea
  With a dying thirst to be the first
  Could it be? Yeah that's him!
  James Cameron

  --credit: South Park

He did an extensive study of that tribe of blue people

Two hours, and I never liked that. I kept rooting for the technological overlords.

The Tigris/Euphrates basin (Mesopotamia) was flooded regularly, and given that it was a cradle of our agricultural civilization 5-10K years ago i, being an atheist who sees Jesus story as an alien visit record, read the Noah story almost as just a real ship's log :)

> who sees Jesus story as an alien visit record

Could you elaborate on this? I've never heard or read anybody say anything like this before.

Most alien stories have all the hallmarks of theism: the whole appeal to superior intelligence/technology, that they are interested in human kind, they intervene in human affairs per an undefined (to us) metric, non-believers are just ignoring the revealed truth/facts i.e. it's their fault, not the fault of weak or non-existence facts, and so on.

If aliens are visiting earth then it seems to me they're like E.T. (the movie): botanists who could give two shits about humans other than not getting caught. Or entomologists, geologist, what have you. There's a lot more interesting stuff happening on the planet than humans. But humans are full of self-importance and gods and aliens play a role in reemphasizing that self-importance.

>I've never heard or read anybody say anything like this before.

that would be strange. A lot of science fiction contains a notion of an alien(s) perceived as a God(s) by native people of the planet being visited.

In case of Jesus we have all the typical stuff - medical nanobots and food replicators, alien species in the "skies" who conquered space and time, and we have pretty clear message (well, we have millions of pages of philosophy written about it, so it is my brief short take on it) - take control over and minimize your violence and develop empathy, and that would speed up (or remove the main obstacles to) the development of your civilization to be able to join the others. Tightly managed, if not abolished, violence and high communication capabilities (direct mind to mind like) are what we think as among the characteristics of developed civilizations. May be it is not the result, may be it is the tool to get there?

Anyway, such attempts to help the development of native civilizations is known to be futile (again, well explored in science fiction) and Jesus obviously was an inexperienced eager to help and frustrated by what he observed observer who went rogue. And thus we have the "Cup of Wrath", the communication with the Mission Command when the Command orders that to minimize consequences of the perpetrated Prime Directive violation the "god scenario" would proceed to completion (which probably didn't include real or full death, yet it was obviously something that one would be happy to avoid - may be something like real death with upload moments before, again going along science fiction lines one can interpret that way the communication with "God" during the crucifixion as well as obvious initial weakness/discomfort with the the new body ("don't touch") when Jesus met Mary after the resurrection (also the 2 angels [dressed] in white busy with some chores right there in the cave after Jesus was resurrected) while some time later he gets used to the body and lets Tomas to inspect it). There is a lot in the story that can be clearly interpreted in the science fiction style, and between God and aliens i bet on aliens :)

Now, here is the really fun part - an idea that we probably do have sample of the Jesus' alien DNA somewhere around (despite the aliens' precautions taken like the hard ultra-violet cleaning of all the biological material in the cave tomb of Jesus) - the "Holy Grail" whatever it is, like say the Dan Brown's child/ancestors of Jesus. Would you like to sequence that DNA? And according to the legends the medical nanobots were still on/with the Holy Grail and still functioning.

So, is Heaven real?

I think, in this scenario, Heaven and Hell are psychological tools invented by an alien race to condition society for colonization. So, hypothetically speaking, no.

Or rather, Heaven is an actual exoplanet where aliens live in peace and prosperity, somewhat like Asgard in the Marvel universe.

Yes, otherwise why would we have 700 episodes of Star Trek depicting it.

You mean like the re-flooding of the Black Sea being the source event of the Great Flood story in Genesis?

There are many candidate theories.


I like the Persian gulf one, after all the Sumerians who lived there later had a myth of which the Noah story seems like a retelling.

Lake Tovel in Italy used to turn red in the summer. Here is both the reason why from both a legend and a scientific viewpoint: http://www.albergolagorosso.it/eng/perche_lago_rosso.php

I wish I'd known about this image when I wrote the poem I posted above!

"Also worrisome is Lake Kivu, a lake over 1,000 times larger than Nyos and in a much more populous area."

I stayed on the Rwandan side of Lake Kivu and had a great relaxing time. Met many peace core volunteers.

Lake Kivu is a major source of methane gas, which powers much of Rwanda. I am assuming they are very aware of the dangers. If something like that would happen at the scale of Lake Kivu, it would be a major catastrophe. That said, I encountered nothing regarding the potential of disaster. Nothing like tsunami/flood zone warnings. Rwanda tends to be a bit more western (aka not chaotic African) in its safety precautions. The DRC on the other side would definitely be more lax.

The Lake Kivu gas extraction project or Kivuwatt as it is called is some what new actually, and there is an interesting article about it here[0]. It is probably one of the strangest energy extraction projects in the world.


I was going to work on this. It's really interesting how it works and it is now producing 26 MW of electricity (40% of Rwanda's supply). It's estimated to have capacity to generate another 800 MW.

The technology started with a local brewery needing a stable power source. It's super cool. The platform they use is huge.

That was a great read, thanks!

Thanks indeed for the link.

>As the CO2 settled, every flame and fire was immediately extinguished, a sign of the doom descending all around Lake Nyos

Despite being relatively enlightened due to living in a modern society, I would be freaked the fuck out if I witnessed this personally.

Very briefly - then you'd be dead.

bad choice of ads - at the end of the article there was a little date widget to "find a hotel near lake Nyos" and choose your departure date and return date.

I mean it was just a small bug, the date selector widget should have been showing departure date only.

Well some people might be interested in visiting it to study it. People visit volcanoes. At least in this case you could wear an oxygen mask and be fairly safe.

When will the machines learn...

Given that CO2 levels in the lake have now built up again to be even higher than they were in 1986, according to this article, I wonder if they shouldn't evacuate the area and see if they can set the thing off intentionally. Seems like explosives might do it -- like shaking a soda can.

I dunno, last time scientists tried to jumpstart a natural process to alleviate danger, they ended up with a flaming pit that hasn't stopped burning for more than 40 years...


An interesting question is whether this is better than the alternative: methane leaking into the atmosphere for 40 years. Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, so unless there was a viable plan to cap the crater, this might have been the lesser of evils.

But maybe not. I don't know what the other options were. Maybe it would have self-extinguished the methane leak if it weren't literally on fire.

That reminded me of an old Alistair McNeil novel set in another geographic area where a natural catastrophy can be expected at some point in time[1].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goodbye_California

Pretty similar to the plot of A View to a Kill[1] too (an okay Jame Bond movie set in Silicon Valley back when it was aptly named).

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_View_to_a_Kill

Maybe geologic sequestration of excess CO2 isn't a good idea.[1]

[1] https://www.undeerc.org/pcor/sequestration/whatissequestrati...

"1.2 cubic kilometers" is a ridiculous unit, because it obscures the cubic power on the kilometer. "1.2 billion cubic meters" would be much better.

I'd rather say 1.2 cubic kilometers is easily visualizable, 1.2 billion of whatever not so much.

1.2 cubic kilometres is definitely more intuitively visualized, but I'd prefer it taken even further.

"Enough CO2 to blanket a 35km by 35km area at 1 metre deep." or "Enough CO2 that, settled at 1 metre deep, it would blanket the land to nearly 20km away."

I think either really paints a more easily understood picture of what a colossal amount of gas this actually is.

You'd probably want to increase the depth in that measure, because phrased that way, it sounds like you could just stand up to avoid the CO2.

According to the article, you could actually stand up to live if you were far enough from the lake. People lying on the floor, on the other hand, died.

Even better would have been to give the mass instead of the volume, because the volume depends on the temperature and pressure. Assuming STP, I get 2.16 billion kg, which I guess most people would call 2.16 million tonnes, though I'm rather inclined to write it as 2.16 Tg :-) That's .01% of worldwide annual emissions from burning fossil fuels.

(Someone should check my arithmetic -- it's been a long time since I last applied the ideal gas law.)

The SI unit is liters; 1.2 cubic kilometers is 1.2 teraliters. I wish people would just use SI units in things like this. However, as other commenters point out, it's also useful to visualize this in different ways: it's a 660-meter-radius sphere, it covers 60000 hectares to two meters deep, or it covers 120000 hectares to one meter deep, or it would cover a 19km radius to one meter deep.

This was an extremely carbonated lake. Seltzer water is about 4 volumes (4:1 CO2 to water measured in volume). The article places the lake at 5 volumes.

Isn't CO₂ poisoning in humans supposed to cause a panic reaction which would serve as a defence? Why didn't that happen here?

There is normally still plenty of O2 left in the air, so you are conscious and panic when too much CO2 is around (actually, in your bloodstream rather than around).

If a huge amount of CO2 displaces everything else quickly, there is suddenly no O2 at all and you just faint, then die.

That's why CO2 poisoning is the humane way that lab specimens are put to sleep.

I've never heard of this. Do you have a source?

I recently learned that CO2 is toxic to human in large concentrations. It doesn't just displace oxygen in your lungs.

Source: can't find a single really good explanation but https://www.google.com/#q=hypercapnic+alarm+response gives you the idea.


Hydrogen sulfide caused Permian extinction.

My favorite theory is that it was caused by massive increase in volcanic activity which was itself caused by a giant meteor hitting earth.

One of my favorites podcasts did a great episode on this! http://www.stuffyoushouldknow.com/podcasts/how-can-a-lake-ex...

Did anyone else find the juxtaposition of "over" and a very precise number in the title a bit strange?

Probably 1746 confirmed but undoubtedly more.

Scroll down to the bottom of that article and... "Find a hotel near lake Nyos".

Er, no, thank you.

Buy a flight along with the hotel and you could save as much as 75$!

Are you sure? I hear the view is to die for.

I like the ad for hotels "Near Lake Nyos" below the article about how dangerous it is.

I had a laugh when I noticed that, too.


This is hardly HN material, but this article included the best application of the Cloud To Butt browser extension I've seen yet.


I find it fascinating that when sufficient time has passed, it becomes acceptable to joke/make light of an event that killed 1000+ people.

By the way, I don't make this comment to embarrass or shame you; just making an observation. Sometimes I too grin at such jokes, but reflecting on the very real lives lost (and the countless family/friends of those who were connected to them) quickly sobers me.

And thanks for mentioning the plugin; downloaded! (I don't care for its use in this particular article but I'm sure it'll give me some chuckles when browsing tech articles)

I think people just have different modes when it comes to tragedy. The first is empathy, where you think "holy shit a thousand lives ended suddenly." The second is a sort of abstraction where the people are more like characters in a story. I don't think people who tell dead baby jokes are actually thinking of how terribly sad it would be for an infant they loved to die.

I think it requires a certain callousness of form though, you know reading the joke and then linking it to others.

I'm not saying you shouldn't do it; I just think that it's an interesting observation that in a different culture no one would make the joke. Probably the dettached medium of communication (internet, anonymous) also has to do with this.

Considering the upvotes, it seems to be of interest to the HN crowd. It was certainly interesting for me.

That said, "my butt spread far and wide, killing people ..." is hilarious.

Sorry, to be clear, the article is great; my post was juvenile.

Agreed! I installed it a long time ago and always forget that it's there until I run across a substitution, and can't help but chuckle. Yeah, it's sophomoric, but it makes me laugh and I like that.

As a long-time user of the Cloud-to-Butt extension, I appreciate your comment. Good to know I'm not alone. :).

Oh man. What a destructive extension!

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